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Ig Nobel Prizes Stranger Than Fiction

5 October 2007 (All day)
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Kees Moeliker

Tell me where it hurts.
Brian Witcombe (left) and Dan Meyer won the 2007 Ig Nobel prize for medicine for their study of the side effects of sword swallowing.

Ice cream may never be the same now that Mayu Yamamoto of the International Medical Center of Japan has discovered how to extract vanillin, the essence of vanilla flavor, from cow dung. Don't pooh-pooh Yamamoto's accomplishment. It may not win her a Nobel Prize, but it has netted her an honor equally exclusive. At a ceremony at Harvard University last night, Yamamoto received the 2007 Ig Nobel Prize for chemistry. A local ice cream shop even whipped up a special flavor in her honor--Yum-a-Moto Vanilla Twist--although the ice cream makers avoided scatological flavoring.

Yamamoto was one of 10 new laureates crowned in the 17th annual Ig Nobel ceremony, which was sponsored by the science humor magazine Annals of Improbable Research. In all, dozens of scientists, five Nobel laureates, and a paper-airplane-throwing throng gathered to celebrate the gems of funny, odd, or questionable research found amid the serious stuff.

The medicine prize went to radiologist Brian Witcombe of Gloucester, U.K., and entertainer Dan Meyer of Antioch, Tennessee, for their work describing the side effects of sword swallowing, which include sore throats and gastrointestinal bleeding. Lakshminarayanan Mahadevan of Harvard University and Enrique Cerda Villablanca of the University of Santiago in Chile were honored with the physics prize for their work uncovering how sheets wrinkle. Biology winner Johanna van Bronswijk of Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands described how bedbugs congregate in those sheets.

At the forefront of combat innovation, the Air Force's Wright Laboratory in Dayton, Ohio, took the peace prize for its 1994 proposal to create a "gay bomb," a chemical weapon that would cause soldiers to make homosexual love, not war. (Air Force researchers were not available to say whether the converted soldiers would want to marry.) And speaking of love, Diego Golombek of the Universidad Nacional de Quilmes, Argentina, accepted the aviation prize for his group's discovery that Viagra can help jetlagged hamsters get their circadian rhythms back on schedule.

Juan Manuel Toro, Josep Trobalon, and Núria Sebastián-Gallés of the Universitat de Barcelona in Spain bagged the linguistics prize for demonstrating that rats can't tell the difference between two languages--Dutch or Japanese--when they are spoken backward. The article “the” made an appearance in the literature prize. Winner Glenda Browne of Blaxland, Blue Mountains, Australia, documented how problematic the can be when alphabetizing. The economics Ig Nobel went to inventor Kuo Cheng Hsieh of Taichung, Taiwan, for U.S. patent #6,219,959, which proposes using a net to capture bank robbers.

Behavior researcher Brian Wansink of Cornell University took home the Ig Nobel in nutrition for his soup bowl that inconspicuously refills as a person slurps from it. He used the deceptive device to examine how people judge how much to eat in a study reported in the journal Obesity Research. Wansink, author of the book Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think and a microcelebrity, took pride in winning the award: "If an article is good enough to be in a great journal and vivid enough to receive an Ig Nobel, that's incredible!"

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